Todd Maisel | 9/11
To Hell and Back…Scene at the World Trade Center by Todd Maisel
When you’ve been to hell and back — tasted the grit, inhaled smoke and dust and felt the horrific vibrations, a new perspective on life is revealed. As a journalist and photographer, it dawned on me after the September 11 World Trade Center terror attack, that what I do is a sacred obligation. I was documenting history and the lives of so many heroes and would-be saints. You recognize how important everyone was and is to your life and realize how courageous so many were.
We were so close to losing many of our photographic brothers and sisters on that day. David Handschuh of the Daily News was blown into the air and under a car and ended up with a broken leg. Kenny Murray, also of the News was trapped with police officers, injured his neck and lost all his equipment. News photographer Tom Monaster was blown off his feet and nearly killed. Bolivar Arellano of the Post received a leg injury that required stitches. Others were luckier, such as Don Halasy of the Post, who was buried in debris against a building, but with nary a scratch. A tragedy so huge as the World Trade Center terror attack ends up bringing us all together. Terror and enormous tragedy is the great equalizer of all races, ethnicity and income levels.
I was on 125th Street near the Henry Hudson Parkway when I heard the police radio call reporting the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. I followed Police Emergency Service Truck 2(that lost two officers) down the west side, all the while my heart pounding as I got closer to the smoking edifice. I was by Manhattan Community College when the second plane struck Tower 2, the police screaming over the radio, ” a second plane struck the Trade Center, we are under attack.”
It didn’t at first enter my mind that I was in danger, only that a great catastrophe was underway. Plane parts were on the ground on Vesey Street. People were fleeing buildings in tears, some injured. On Church Street and Dey, I saw a friend, Police Officer Bobby Fazio, helping a man suffering burns to his face and back. He handed off that man to medical crews and ran back to the buildings to see who else he could help. That was the last I saw of him. I raced to Liberty Street once Susan Watts from the News showed. There were body parts and luggage scattered on the ground – a human hand pointed at me on the pavement. Jagged parts of the plane were strewn about, one spear-like piece having pierced the hood of an auto. It is here that David Handschuh and I crossed paths momentarily. Cars were burning in the parking lot and firefighters were attempting to put them out as small pieces of debris rained down from above. A firefighter was struck by something that fell from the building, his head and chest bloodied. Fellow firefighters were dragging him away from the danger, one screaming “hold on, brother, hold on.”
Why were they putting themselves at risk, I thought. A moment later the building came tumbling towards me and the rescuers. I ran under scaffolding of 90 West Street, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough. I dived into the building, rolling and striking the wall as I came to a rest in a fetal position. Walls and ceilings exploded. Debris rained everywhere. The lobby fell dark and I could barely breathe. Was this going to be my tomb? I began crawling out backwards the same way I believe I came from. On the way out, I bumped into a woman officer, grabbed her by the arm and said “Get out of here.” Once out the door, I shared some water with her and started screaming for others to follow my voice in the darkened corridor. Once people began to emerge, I looked out into the street where I saw hell on earth. Fire all around.
The street was littered with overturned ambulances and emergency vehicles burning. A firefighter stood among the burning trucks. A water can in his hand, he stood gazing up at the sky blankly. It was as dark as night – the air thick with dust. I began going from ambulance to fire truck, looking for injured. I could hear a voice calling for help amidst the stillness. I came upon a medic with a partially covered firefighter. After clearing the debris, I climbed into the rear of an overturned ambulance and pulled out a backboard. We quickly pushed the semi-conscious firefighter on and carried him with other rescuers at least two blocks where we found the fire surgeon and firefighters.
Again, I returned to the wreckage, fire shooting from holes in the street from broken gas mains. Manholes that weren’t covered, were shooting into the air. Explosions everywhere. I helped one other firefighter and a civilian who was sitting on back of a damaged ambulance. Then, I found fellow photographer David Handschuh of the News, his leg broken in three places. A cop and two firefighters carried him and I took his cameras.
We made our way through the swirling dust into Battery Park City where we laid him on the floor of a deli, its front door smashed. I gave him a Snapple and sat next to him for a brief moment before another rumble could be heard. Cops and firefighters dived back into the store – some screaming and crying. The second building sent debris hurtling towards our building, bringing down the façade and smashing windows. A man was screaming that we were trapped, but when the dust settled, I could see a glimmer of heaven’s light.
The rest of the day was spent looking for survivors, lugging backboards into the wreckage. Fire trucks were smashed like pancakes. The building remains stood in almost artistic forms that only the devil could devise. I was clad in gloves and a helmet from Rescue 2, all of their members missing. I had helped empty tools from the beleaguered vehicle for rescuers to utilize. I later handed the helmet to a Rescue 2 firefighter who was not on duty at the time of the catastrophe. Shards of metal ripped my clothes, water up to my knees from broken water mains. I sought water in wrecked ambulances, brought some out to firefighters to clear their eyes and throats. I later ran into Uniform Fire Officers President Peter Gorman and broke down in his arms. I’ve seen terrible things, but I was overcome with emotions as I’ve never felt before.
The loss of so many great people has left us with a huge responsibility to tell their story and preserve their history. The lessons they taught us from their selfless acts that took their lives, will impact myself and most every other New Yorker for generations.